Sayounara Japan and a Trip to Europe
After traveling through Southeast Asia, I returned to Japan where my host family had held my luggage for me before I headed home. I had one final day to wander through the streets of Kyoto, sit by the kamogawa river that is so central to the city, and eat at my favorite ramen shop. It did feel sort of odd being there knowing that my friends had already made their ways home. At night, the girls hosted a closing dinner and showed me their keyboard pieces since I wasn’t going to be there to see them perform in the coming month. We ate sukiyaki (my favorite meal) in the tatami room that’s used for special occasions, and my koto instructor even showed up! At the end, the Kojimas gave me some souvenirs to take with me including a sack of Japanese rice so my family could also have a taste.
On the following morning, my host family drove me to the airport where we said our final goodbyes. Of course it was a bit sad. Just as adjusting to life in Japan came with its difficulties, I knew that it would take time to make the switch back. Part of me somehow felt like it was already time to leave though, some sort of break was necessary. I know that if it’s up to me I’ll be returning one day, though I’m not quite sure in what capacity or for how long just yet. When that time comes I’ll make sure to meet up with the Kojimas, but till then I’ll make sure to keep communications open.
From Kansai International I flew over to Beijing where I took advantage of a long layover and their 72 hour transit visas to do some final sightseeing. From there, I took a 10 hour flight to Honolulu where I stayed with Kirsten (a friend from my study abroad program) and her family. I never thought I’d be going to Hawaii, even for a short stay, but I’ve developed a travel bug and try to take advantage of any chance to see new places. Her father is actually a Williams alumni so conversations about Amherst naturally came up and that was a bit nostalgic considering I haven’t been there for so long. After dinner we sat around watching Dancing with the Stars and that’s when I realized how much I was looking forward to being back home with my own family.
We went on an early morning hike on Diamond Head where signs were also in Japanese for the tourists who frequent the islands. Hawaii is probably the most Japanese part of the U.S. you’ll find, and my friend’s mother is actually Japanese. We ate Moco Locos at the beach before I headed to the airport and flew off to Seattle, connecting to a flight for Boston. I stayed there for about two days going through orientation for my summer internship and it was because they were flying me in domestically that I had them get me a flight from Hawaii. I also took this time to adventure Boston, becoming a tourist within the U.S. as well. I rearranged my wallet by this point, removing my clipped Japanese residency card, medical insurance cards, and any remaining yen. It started settling in that I’d left Japan for good.
Once I was done with orientation, I flew to New York where my family picked me up for a very quick dinner reunion. I went back to the airport a couple of hours after I’d arrived to start another backpacking trip, this time in Europe! I’d also planned this one months ago so I was able to save an unbelievable amount. This trip took me through Barcelona, Amsterdam, London, Paris, and Rome, meeting up with Amherst friends I hadn’t seen in very long.
I guess my biggest impression of Europe was on the diversity of co-existing cultures in such proximity to one another. You can take a flight from an airport that only serves short haul flights and encounter so many languages. There’s the European Union, sharing currency and allowing next to unregulated travel between borders, but maybe this is what has allowed each country to manifest a nationalism in preserving itself.
Something I’ve considered more while traveling is if I could become an expat and commit to a life outside of the U.S. I’d naturally try to imagine myself in Japan but the longer I stayed there the more I questioned if it was somewhere I could feel at home long term. In Japan, I was nearly always spoken to in English unless I initiated the conversation, and that was just one way in which I felt like an outsider. I felt wholly accepted by those who knew me though. The whole foreigner in Japan outlook isn’t something I see changing in my lifetime but one can feel like an outsider right at home, and maybe it would be a nice challenge to establish your place somewhere solely on your own terms.
I think I’d enjoy living abroad for at least a couple of years but in comparing this to these past few months studying abroad, the length is much longer, the where much more ambiguous. The more places I saw, the more I realized it could but didn’t necessarily have to be Japan. For example, I found comfort in the diversity of large concentrated communities of expats in places such as Singapore and Hong Kong. In Spain, I felt treated as one of their own when spoken to in Spanish, even if it was obvious I was a tourist. But Japan is still important to me in its own special way. I speak some French but in the middle of trying to switch my rusty gears back while in Paris, the Japanese iie would slip out in place of non. I also found myself thinking, “Don’t forget Omar, you need to bring back souvenirs for mom and your sisters”, straight from Japan’s omiyage culture.
This past month looped me from Southeast Asia, across the Pacific and then over the Atlantic to Europe. I carried with me Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 and finished it right before arriving home. It’s been fun seeing differences between societies but this didn’t mean comparing them, rather accepting that things just work differently in other places. It was even interesting just seeing the different McDonald’s menus countries came up with.
There are lots of them, but here are some tips I can come up with for traveling:
- Study abroad. Leave for a semester. Can you make it two? Even better! When else will you be able to travel at this age and with this vigor?
- Acquaint yourself with your location. You should leave with at least a few contacts and be convinced that it is worth returning to one day. Also travel domestically, it’ll allow you to see different sides of the country’s people. Japan isn’t nearly as large as the U.S. but the difference between an Okinawan and someone from Hokkaido is comparable to that between a west and east coaster.
- Visit surrounding countries. You don’t know when you’ll be so close to them again.
- Save money! This one’s pretty important for me. I grew to enjoy the planning stages almost as much as the actual traveling itself. Number one rule is to book waaaaay in advance. I’ve booked hostels for even $4/night because of this, especially through sites like agoda and airbnb. If traveling within Japan specifically and you’re not claustrophobic, consider capsule hotels or even manga cafés. Ask for student discounts. You should still be prepared to spend though, considering that you’re visiting for a full one-time experience. For me, working up to seven campus jobs during my sophomore year in saving up for a rainy day helped me afford my trips. It also helped that the exchange rate to the dollar increased by nearly 20% during my time in Japan. What a thrill to travel on a budget but also remember to occasionally treat yo’ self.
- Walk! Can you believe the London Tube was nearly $7.50 one way?! Save the money and exercise those legs instead. You’ll encounter many things you wouldn’t see otherwise, and it’ll also help burn off the pasta you’ve just stuffed your face with.
- Be safe. Better safe than sorry is my philosophy. This shouldn’t prevent you from taking chances though, but just make sure that they are smart ones. Look into possible threats specific to a country. These will range from being on the lookout for pickpockets in Rome to avoiding Bangkok’s tap water. I found myself having to revert to skills as a New Yorker even after having been in quiet ole Kyoto for so long.
- Travel alone. It can feel lonely at times but will turn out to be such a good personal experience. You’ll learn lots, including how to take care of yourself in various situations. Being on your own eating and sleeping schedules will keep your trip efficient and flexible. It is always nice to see a familiar face if you can incorporate that into your trip though, but don’t let that distract from me time.
- It’s okay to do the touristy stuff. They’re touristy for a reason but do choose depending on your interests. Tripadvisor or lonely planet are great resources with lists and reviews.
- Keep track of the memories. Even while writing this, I can tell that things have started becoming a blur after jumping from country to country. Forgetting can be really annoying but it’s easier to remember specific stories if you have something to look back on, like photos or ticket stubs in a scrapbook. Keeping a blog like this one can also be a great resource to look back on!
Who knows, maybe the constant movement is helping to make readjusting back easier. I’m sure of one thing though: choosing to study abroad and traveling the world has made for one of the best years in my life so far. Part of enjoying keeping busy means that I’ll have less time to think about missing Japan and it’s already started, but I have a feeling it will really set in once I return to life at Amherst. I know that I’m never really that far away from it and I write this as I munch on Japanese snacks fashioned with the Gudetama character that I brought back with me. In all seriousness though, I’ll actually be returning to Amherst in about 2 weeks just to work with visiting students from Doshisha Elementary, many of which I’ve already met through volunteering there while in Japan.
Before this all started I had only been outside of the U.S. to visit my mom’s family in the Dominican Republic. Since I started this journey I managed to visit 13 new countries over 44 flights with a total flight time of 157 hours and 20 minutes (6.5 days). Just flying, I traveled 89,548 miles (144,113 km). That’s over 3.6 times around the globe! Calculating these stats was fun but what surprised me the most was that domestically I managed to visit 17 out of Japan’s 47 prefectures which makes my travel experiences within the U.S. embarrassing. A U.S. passport is a powerful one and I plan to continue taking advantage of it, but maybe it’s time for a U.S. road trip…
I hope to continue traveling as a hobby (while making big savings, of course!) and will actually be leaving for an 8-week global health research position in Lima, Peru in less than a month! Since it has a number of Japanese descendants, I’ll also be able to collect more research notes there for my thesis. I’d searched actively for this opportunity and have started incorporating world travels as just one more aspect of the multidisciplinary career path I’m shaping for myself. Japan was what propelled me into these adventures, and it may very well also become a long term destination.
Oh and before I forget, here’s a clip I promised a number of posts ago. This is Toryanse, one of the songs I performed in a duet with my instructor for AKP’s final ceremony.
That’s all for now, it’s been a blast writing and thanks for reading my blogs! Goodbye Japan. See you later. Matane.